The U.S. built a three-goal first period lead and marched to a convincing 6-1 quarter-final victory over Slovakia on Thursday at Arena Riga.
The late, legendary American coach Bob Johnson used to say, "It's a great day for hockey," and his words certainly echoed through this game for coach Jack Capuano's team, which now enjoys a seven-game winning streak heading into Saturday's semi-finals. They've allowed just nine goals in eight games.
"No matter who we play, we're just going to have to make sure that we continue to try to play structured and work extremely hard," said Capuano.
Colin Blackwell and Conor Garland shone with a pair of goals apiece for the Americans, and captain Brian Boyle and Sasha Chmelevski also scored. Kevin Labanc, Eric Robinson, Trevor Moore, and Christian Wolanin chipped in two assists apiece.
"It's a ‘next man up’ mentality every single time we step on the ice, and we go into every single game, knowing that we have whatever it takes in our room to win," Blackwell said. "When you have that mentality, good things happen, just supporting each other all across the ice and sticking to our identity."
Tournament scoring leader Peter Cehlarik (5+6=11) replied for Slovakia, which will go home without a medal for the ninth consecutive year.
"I don’t know what happened there," Cehlarik said. "I thought we were ready to play, but I guess we weren’t. That was a horrible first period. It was 3-0 and it could have been worse. There’s no excuse for that. It’s really disappointing to do that in such a big game."
The Americans are now just two wins away from capturing their first gold medal at an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship since 1933. They have won four bronze medals in the 21st century (2004, 2013, 2015, 2018).
"We’re looking ahead to the semi-final game on Saturday and trying not to get ahead of ourselves here," Blackwell said. "It's just kind of one game at a time. But obviously, that'd be huge not just for this group, but huge for USA Hockey. And, you know, why not us?"
Huska, a tall 24-year-old New York Rangers prospect from Zvolen, allowed three goals after being inserted in the third period of the 7-3 loss to the Czechs to end the round-robin. Huska, who also played two World Juniors (2015, 2016), got his only previous start in the Latvian capital when Slovakia lost 3-1 to Sweden.
American starter Cal Petersen, who played 35 games for the Los Angeles Kings this season, got the nod again from coach Jack Capuano. Final shots favoured the U.S. 33-28.
"It’s about sacrifice," Petersen said. "A lot of guys blocking shots, especially there at the end. You saw we had a comfortable lead and guys were still sacrificing their bodies. And that’s what this is about. That’s how you win hockey games. It's just a testament to the character we have in the room and it’s going to take us a long way."
Dominating with speed and winning one-on-one battles, the U.S. put the Slovaks under pressure from the drop of the puck. They ended up with a 5-on-3 power play less than three minutes in. Huska battled to keep the score even, as he stretched out to rob Trevor Moore on the doorstep off Garland’s cross-crease set-up.
The U.S.’s persistence finally paid off at 13:08 with an unassisted goal to open the scoring. The 36-year-old Boyle – wearing the C in place of the injured Justin Abdelkader, who addressed the team pre-game – came down left wing and blew an old-school slap shot from the top of the faceoff circle over Huska’s glove. Boyle, a two-time Stanley Cup finalist (2014, 2015), did not play in the NHL this season.
It was a good omen. The Americans have won every game in Riga where they’ve scored first.
Play was whistled down when Matty Beniers lost an edge on the forecheck and slid into the boards. The 18-year-old University of Michigan forward, who won World Junior gold in Edmonton in January and is a top 2021 NHL draft prospect, was assisted off the ice, as he struggled to put weight on his right skate. The Americans also lost defenceman Matt Roy to an upper-body injury in the first period. There was no immediate update on the status of Beniers or Roy afterwards.
"I think Slovakia had some big bodies out there," Blackwell said. "In those first 10 minutes, a lot of big hits. Couple injuries here and there on both sides. We're trying to lay everything on the line."
At 15:25, Blackwell finished off a rush with Robinson and Labanc to make it 2-0.
"It's been awesome," Blackwell said. "For me, I think I was a little bit snakebit in the preliminary round. But I'm playing with good players, no matter who I'm playing with, and I’m just getting a really good opportunity here.
With just 29 seconds left in the first, Garland showed off his magic hands to give the U.S. a three-goal lead. He gobbled up a neutral zone turnover, toe-dragged the puck around a sliding Slovak defender in the faceoff circle, and beat Huska with a nifty shot off the short-side post.
Garland's line with Trevor Moore and Jason Robertson, who was announced Thursday as a Calder Trophy finalist along with Minnesota's Kirill Kaprizov and Carolina's Alex Nedeljkovic, has been a focal point this year, but secondary scoring certainly augmented America's strength here.
"We got off to a bad start," said Slovakia's Marek Hrivik. "Our plan was to come out hard and put pressure on them and it didn’t work out. They scored a couple quick goals and it’s hard to come back against a good team like that."
In the second period, the Slovaks generated two shots but no goals on their first man advantage with Zac Jones off for hooking. The underdogs continued to push, and finally Cehlarik penetrated Petersen's armour with a short-side wrister from the left side at 12:12.
Shortly afterwards, Cehlarik was fortunate to not get sent off for a hit from behind on U.S. blueliner Matt Hellickson.
At 16:50, Blackwell restored the three-goal U.S. lead, taking a cross-ice pass from Robinson and firing it into the gaping cage.
In the third period, Chmelevski put the game firmly out of reach at 5:15, going to the net to complete a tic-tac-toe passing play with Boyle and Christian Wolanin. Garland rounded out the scoring at 6-1 with a slap shot with 1:45 remaining.
It’s been a strange tournament goaltending-wise for Slovakia. Branislav Konrad, the longtime starter of HC Olomouc, held the reins to open the tournament, but was injured in the 2-1 victory over Great Britain and hasn't returned. Regardless, with how this quarter-final unfolded, it may not have mattered who appeared between Slovakia's pipes.
"It’s a disappointing way to finish, but overall I’m really proud of all these guys," Cehlarik said. "A lot of guys really stepped up and played some great hockey. We won some big games and I thought we had a great tournament. I think we can all return home with our heads held high."
With an average age of 25, this was the youngest team Slovakia has ever sent to an IIHF World Championship. Slovakia owns four Worlds medals all-time (silver 2000, gold 2002, bronze 2003, silver 2012).
This was just the second quarter-final meeting between the Americans and Slovaks in IIHF World Championship history. The Slovaks won 4-1 in 2000 in St. Petersburg en route to their first Worlds medal (silver). Miroslav Satan, Michal Hreus, Vlastimil Plavucha and Lubos Bartecko scored for Slovakia, while Darby Hendrickson had the only American goal. That was Slovakia's first victory ever over the U.S. in international play.
Slovakia's quest to medal again must wait until the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland (Tampere and Helsinki).